Thrilling Thursday – a review of the birds of March – April 2024

A quiet early migration period affected by unseasonal weather was enlivened on two successive Thursdays by some unusual visitors.


Six Black-tailed Godwits join a slumbering Oystercatcher on the Scrape (Adam Wilson)

Thrilling Thursdays

A review of the birds of March – April 2024

March started cold with an unusually warm spell towards the end of the month when for a few days into early April early migration was apparent before cold weather and persistent northerlies prevailed.

Mute Swan numbers increased steadily to 48 by the end of April, as the refugee immatures began to arrive for the summer.

A male ahead of a female Garganey swimming right to left
Garganey pair (Stuart Fox)

Spring woke up on the third Thursday in March -Thrilling Thursday- when an immaculate pair of Garganey arrived. There was something in the air that day… namely a White Stork, a Marsh Harrier (first for the year) and six Black-tailed Godwits! The next Thursday was eagerly anticipated – and produced a Cattle Egret! Whether the same two or not, a pair of Garganeys (re)appeared for three days in April (in the intervening time a pair were seen on the Kings Meads near Ware).

Some winter duck numbers predictably dropped off as birds moved back onto the continent, most notably Shoveler and Teal, but two pairs of Red-crested Pochards moved onto the site and a pair of Shelducks took up residence. Pochard numbers increased to a whopping 38 by the end of April, boding well for the breeding season. It is interesting that this duck was thought of as a wintering species back in the day, now it’s very much a summer breeder steadily increasing here, against national trends.

Great Crested Grebes were omnipresent, which is unusual for so early in the season, as well as several ‘newcomer’ species, notably Greylags, Egyptian Geese, Little Egrets and Red Kites, with up to five of the latter.

A pair of Oystercatchers turned up in early March, and have remained, with an unwanted extra male on occasion, with nest scraping and mating observed; will this beat the Parakeets to the next Rye Meads breeder prize? Watch this space.  Other potential breeding waders have been Lapwings with several birds, and two pairs of Little Ringed Plovers.

Passage Waders have been few; the Black-wits already mentioned, single Dunlin and Redshank each on two dates, and a Common Sandpiper on one date completing the roll call. The overwintering Green Sandpipers lasted to the end of the period, whilst Jack Snipe peaked at a creditable 18 in March, but had disappeared by mid April. Common Snipe numbers were low, 29 in early March being the best count, but small numbers lingering through to the end of April.

It was all rather unremarkable on the gull front apart from a first year Yellow-legged Gull in March and a 2nd winter Great Black-backed Gull in April. A sudden exodus of Black-headed Gulls in mid-April was ominous given the last few years’ troubled breeding seasons, and Rye Meads was unusually quiet for a fortnight or so. However the squabbling masses have returned and settled on the rafts so it will be fascinating to see how they fare this season.

Goldcrests trickled away in March, unusually there were no April records. A sighting of a Mistle Thrush overhead in early March was a rare event.

Most ‘winter’ passerines faded away with barely a whisper, the last Meadow Pipit was in March with no spring passage at all, single Skylarks on just two dates in March, Fieldfare were completely absent in the period whilst the final Redwings pushed through mid March. A Lesser Redpoll in March was the only record, whilst February’s Siskin passage continued with 22 in early March but were gone by month’s end.

Late March brought a good arrival of Mediterranean winterers, Chiffchaff and Blackcap totals picking up from the winter numbers. However, the early April southerlies did not bring the birds anticipated as African migrants hit a bottleneck further south. Early Reed Warblers were the exception, with three in early April. The strong north westerly airflow in mid-April and its induced cold spell did not deter a Garden Warbler.  Otherwise, low numbers of spring migrants trickled in mainly when, or a touch later than, expected. Most trans-Saharan warblers have not yet arrived in number; the Whitethroat being particularly scarce, yet to exceed three birds. That same airflow messed with hirundine migration producing higher counts than of recent springs, holding up 70 Sand Martins, 30 Swallows and 10 House Martins in April.

There was however a stunning male Redstart which came to inspect ongoing repairs to the Ringing Barn’s verandah roof, the first since May 2018. Also a lucky sight through the Works fence in April came as a passing vehicle flushed up a male Wheatear and a cracking summer plumage Water Pipit in quick succession.

The second half of April also saw the first two Swifts and the first Cuckoo, against the cold northerlies, whilst a curious gathering of up to 12 Pied Wagtails on the scrape for a few days may have been grounded migrants or hard pushed ‘locals’ (too many to all be Rye Meads birds). Finally a first summer male Marsh Harrier following on from the Thrilling Thursday bird on three days in April.

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